'The Illusionist' UK Premiere
Sylvain Chomet's 'The Illusionist'

As guests arrived for the UK Premiere of ‘The Illusionist’ at last nights Edinburgh Film Festival Opening Gala, they were greeted on the red carpet by a glittering display of showgirls, stilt-walkers and tumbling strongmen.

The film’s director Sylvain Chomet and producers Bob Last and Sally Chomet, were joined by an array of stars from the world of film including Sir Sean Connery, Sir Patrick Stewart, Britt Ekland, America Ferrera, Nick Hornby, Jason Isaacs, Ben Miller, Mike Hodges and Bill Forsyth.

Once inside the Festival Theatre, the audience were treated to performances by showgirls and a magician before Chomet stepped on stage to introduce his film, described by many who have seen it as a “love letter to Edinburgh”.

The Illusionist

Based upon a lost script by French comic filmmaker Jacques Tati that he created for his estranged daughter, the story behind The Illusionist’s production is fascinating in its own right. But ignorance of that narrative isn’t an obstacle to the appreciation of this rewarding

The film’s eponymous illusionist is disillusioned with barely attended
performances in Paris and London. Compared to the emerging thrills of rock ‘n’ roll, his art form is an anachronism, a relic of more innocent times. His increasing desperation for fresh new audiences eventually takes him to Edinburgh where he earns the adoration of Alice. Immediately enamoured by the illusionist’s skills, her youthful optimism invigorates him with a new lease of life.

Almost devoid of dialogue, this film helmed by Sylvain Chomet (Belleville Rendez-vous) relies on intricately crafted and primarily hand drawn animation to convey its tender emotions and minimalistic plot. The jokes are understated, quaint even (although mostly well realised – especially in a scene tackling the inadvertent serving of a portion of bunny soup) but they suit the subtle atmosphere which takes a while to unfold. And for eagle-eyed fans, the details host an otherworld of small puns waiting to be discovered – see for example the comic range of stereotypically
artery-blocking Scottish dishes lurking on a menu just behind the
illusionist’s head.

The central message of the streamlined plot is the issue of growing old in a world where the new promises a greater future at the cost of the alienation of those that come before it. Our hero is unable to adapt – culturally, technologically or in the workplace – what follows when your best years are behind you? Tati’s original purpose was surely to demonstrate that relationships should be held dear even when life crashes its waves of disappointment in your direction.

Unflinchingly honest in its realism, but magical in its quiet beauty, The Illusionist is a gently charming wonder.

Words by Ben Hopkins

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